Almost one quarter of all post-primary pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) do not avail of them, new figures reveal.
There are slightly more than 22,000 secondary school pupils entitled to FSM. Only 16,715 take advantage of them, however, with the rest choosing to instead pay for lunches.
The FSM scheme is designed to help ease the financial burden on low-income families.
The meals are provided to children whose parents receive benefits or whose family income is less than £16,190 a year.
Northern Ireland education minister John O’Dowd is frustrated that too many people are not accessing the support to which they are entitled.
The particular challenges faced by poor pupils in accessing, participating in and benefiting from formal education are well documented.
Mr O’Dowd says people should not underestimate the important contribution which a healthy, nutritionally balanced school meal can make to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, to learning, cognitive development and academic performance.
The scheme supports the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government commitment to tackle disadvantage and close the gap in educational attainment between the least and most deprived communities.
New figures show, however, that the families of more than 5,000 secondary pupils are not accepting the help offered.
Uptake is highest (82.2 per cent) in the Western Education and Library Board, which serves parts of Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
In the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which covers parts of Belfast and County Down, the uptake is just 71 per cent.
A greater proportion of children in Catholic maintained post-primary schools (78.4 per cent) are claiming their meals compared to those receiving their secondary education in the state-controlled sector (70.6 per cent).